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Driving the Thrilling Causeway Coastal Route

The iconic basalt columns of The Giant's Causeway in Antrim, Northern Ireland. This is the highlight of the Causeway Coastal Route.

The rolling hills of the Emerald Isle become more pronounced as you reach the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland. The hills push up to the sea creating jaw dropping green cliffs. Carved into the cliffs and perched on the hills, the Antrim Coast Road links castles, sandy beaches, small towns and amazing geological formations. The Causeway Coastal Route is one of the most beautiful drives anywhere in the world.

The Dark Hedges (featured in the Game of Thrones) are formed by beech trees.  While not officially part of the Causeway Coastal Route, this still makes striking visit before heading on the Antrim Coast Road.

The Dark Hedges

The Dark Hedges
While not on the main Antrim Coast Road, the Dark Hedges may be one Northern Ireland’s hottest attractions right now. Used in the Game of Thrones (Season 2), this lonely stretch of road wasn’t the easiest to find, but was well worth the effort. Here, beech trees dating from the mid-1700s form a tunnel-like canopy over the roadway as the branches entwine. The Dark Hedges is like traveling back in time. We approached from the hills to the south, but the more iconic view is taken from the north end and looking back to the southeast through the trees. The cows in the field took interest in our activities, but other than their curious gazes, we didn’t see or hear a living creature. Not quite the bustling activity of the Game of Thrones, but well worth the visit before starting the Causeway Coastal Route.

A rainbow over the iconic basalt columns of The Giant's Causeway in Antrim, Northern Ireland.

Rainbow over The Giant’s Causeway

The Giants’s Causeway
The mythic Giant’s Causeway is the reason for most visitors coming to this remote stretch of Northern Ireland. The Causeway Coastal Route takes its name from the strange geological formations that occur here. Over 40,000 basalt columns bear witness to 60-million year old lava flows. As the lava masses cooled, it fractured into the pillar structures seen today. While striking and iconic, this kind of formation is seen in several places in the world including Svartifoss in Iceland, Fingal’s Cave in Scotland, and the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

Of course, the Irish and their gift of gab came up with another explanation. In Gaelic mythology, a giant named Finn MacCool lived in these parts. Finn quarreled with another giant, Benandonner, from Scotland. Finn MacCool one day built the Giant’s Causeway from Ireland to Scotland to challenge Benandonner. According to lore, Finn defeats Benandonner and destroys his Causeway so others can’t find him. Of course, like all good mythology, there are many different versions. In the version from Scotland, Benandonner is the victor and destroys the Causeway. This myth explains why the basalt columns can also be seen on the Scottish side of the channel.

The Giant's Causeway on the Antrim Coast Road in Northern Ireland.

We had been looking forward to visiting the Giant’s Causeway for many years. So, we were disappointed that our visit was clouded by rain and wind – driving rain. It was kind of a miserable experience actually, but we made best of it. We hiked down to the Causeway, but utilized the shuttle bus to bring us back up. The Giant’s Causeway itself was much smaller than we anticipated, but also more beautiful. When we finally got down to the hexagonal features, we were blessed with a few brief moments without rain and a rainbow out over the Port Ganny.

Venturing out on the Antrim Coast Road's Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.

Laura venturing out on the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

Carrick-a-Rede
The Antrim Coast rope bridge, called Carrick-a-Rede, swings between the mainland and Carrick Island. Originally built by fisherman over 350 years ago to catch fish that swim this channel at high tide, the rope bridge now takes visitors across the chasm for views of Scotland and Ireland’s Antrim coastline. While not particularly high (just 100 feet), the bridge can instill a fear of heights for those who are pre-disposed. For many, this is a highlight of the Causeway Coastal Route.

Ruins of the Dunluce Castle on the Antrim Coast Road in Northern Ireland.

Dunluce Castle
Right at a dramatic turn on the Antrim Coast Road between Portrush and the Giant’s Causeway, the majestic ruins of the medieval Dunluce Castle hang on the cliffs of a small island just offshore. Connected by a narrow bridge to the mainland, Dunluce Castle is an imposing structure. Erected in the 13th century by the Earl of Ulster, the castle (and the surrounding Antrim Coast) was ruled by the McQuillan and MacDonald clans for centuries. Today, the ruins of Dunluce Castle are a popular picnic spot on the Causeway Coastal Route. We confess to enjoying our lunch here and looking out on the crumbling old structure.

A grain building at the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland.  For many visitors, this is a highlight of the Causeway Coastal Route.

Grain building at Old Bushmills

Old Bushmills Distillery
Lovers of that Liquid Gold will enjoy the Old Bushmills Distillery tour. The smell the sweet mash in the air hits you long before you see the large barn. While not whiskey drinkers before the tour, this was one of the best tours we’ve ever had and was a highlight of our visit to Ireland’s distilleries. Full of independent charm and attitude, Old Bushmills feels absolutely perfect. And nothing beats the wonderful hot toddy in the sample room! We’re whiskey drinkers now.

The village of Portrush can be a sleepy fishing village in the off-season.  This makes a great base to explore the Causeway Coastal Route.

The fishing village of Portrush

Portrush
The city of Portrush is the kind of regional hub of Northern Ireland’s North Coast. The trains coming into the Antrim Coast from Belfast and Derry arrive in Portrush. Today, the town is a bustling seaside resort in summer filled with small hotels and B&Bs catering to the beach goers. But in the off-season, Portrush is a sleepy fishing village that makes a great base to explore the Causeway Coastal Route. Like many seaside resorts around the world, Portrush has a number of indoor amusement arcades and a small amusement park. I dropped more than a few Pounds in one of the open arcades playing a basketball hoop game.

A church inside the walled city of Derry, Northern Ireland.

A church inside the walled city of Derry

Derry/Londonderry
The city of Derry is the second largest city in Northern Ireland and marks the end of the Antrim Coast Road. Derry (the name was officially changed to Londonderry by King James I for political reasons) is the largest completely intact walled city on the island of Ireland. For many years, Derry played host to some of the worst of The Troubles and became a highly militarized city after the Bloody Sunday – a massacre where 26 unarmed protestors were shot by British soldier’s. We spent our time in the city visiting the Bogside neighborhood to see the Troubles Murals of Derry and understanding the complicated political events that transpired in this city. These days, the city along the River Foyle is better known for the modern Peace Bridge spanning the river. The bridge has become a symbol for the city – the troubled past, and the bright future.

The Causeway Coastal Route explores the rough (but beautiful) Antrim Coast.

The rough Antrim coastline

Visiting the Antrim Coast and driving the Causeway Coastal Route was the highlight of our Northern Ireland trip.

Causeway Coastal Route Visitor Information

The Dark Hedges: Located outside the town of Armoy on Bregagh Road near the intersection with Ballinlea Road. There are two pull-offs at the southeast end of the Hedges to park your car.

Giant’s Causeway: The Giant’s Causeway is located 2 miles north of the village of Bushmills on the B147 Causeway/Antrim Coast Road. Admission: £10.00. Hours: The Causeway is open dawn to dusk. The visitor center is open 09:00-17:00, longer hours in the summer. There is parking on site, but can be limited at peak times. Website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway/

Carrick-a-Rede: The Antrim Coast rope bridge is located 7 miles east of the Giant’s Causeway and the village of Bushmills along the B15 road. Follow the signs off the roadway and up the private drive to the parking lot. Admission: £5.90. Hours: The bridge is open 9:30-15:30 in the winter and 09:30-19:00 in the summer. Website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/carrick-a-rede/

Dunluce Castle: Located between the villages of Portrush and Bushmills on the A2 Antrim Coast Road. Parking available. Admission: £5.00. Hours: Open from 10:00-16:00 in the winter and 10:00-18:00 in the summer.

The Old Bushmills Distillery: Located in the village of Bushmills at 2 Distillery Road, Bushmills, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. Ample parking is available. Admission: £7.00. Hours: Summer: Mon.-Sat. 9:15am-4:45pm, Sun. 12:00-4:45pm. Winter hours: Mon.-Sat. 10:00-4:45pm, Sun. 12:00-4:45pm. Please note: No photography allowed inside the distillery and no open toed shoes on the tour. Website: Visit Old Bushmills

Where to Stay: There are a number of small towns with hotels and B&Bs along the Causeway Coast. Check here for the latest hotel prices in Antrim County.

If you don’t want to rent a car and drive yourself, there are a number of day trips that cover the main sites on the Antrim Coast.

Note: Some links may be affiliate links, which means Travel Addicts may earn a few pennies if you buy something, which helps offset our costs of web hosting – all at no additional cost to you.

Casks on the Bushmills distillery tour

The Old Bushmills Distillery






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What do you think about Driving the Thrilling Causeway Coastal Route?

  1. Charles McCool January 28, 2015 at 9:36 am #

    What a beautiful area. I was fortunate to visit the ancestral homeland of the McCools several years ago and would love to return. Rainbow over Giants Causeway? That’s awesome.
    Charles McCool recently posted…Finding Lower Airfares, 2015 EditionMy Profile

  2. Helen January 29, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

    Great pics! So bummed I missed Northern Ireland, but I’ve bookmarked this page for future reference.
    Helen recently posted…A South African Safari Through Timbavati Game ReserveMy Profile

  3. Melissa January 30, 2015 at 1:20 am #

    Loving that Dark Hedges picture.

    • Laura Longwell January 30, 2015 at 10:51 pm #

      Thanks, Melissa. It took a little work to find them, but we were rewarded handsomely.

  4. Franca February 1, 2015 at 5:01 am #

    That looks amazing, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I really must make it there one day, it would be such a shame not to.
    Franca recently posted…Interview with the Street Artist SOPEMy Profile

  5. Tamara February 10, 2015 at 4:30 am #

    Excellent write-up! Northern Ireland is high on our list, and we’re hoping to visit this year. I have many ancestral ties to this area, including some family I’ve never met…yet. we are also involved with the Game of Thrones exhibit / tour this year, so even more reason now.
    Tamara recently posted…Food for Thought with Jessica LipowskiMy Profile

  6. Jim February 10, 2015 at 5:28 am #

    Your vivid descriptions make a visit to Northern Ireland even more enticing for me!

    • Laura Longwell February 10, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

      Thanks, Jim. It’s such a unique, breathtaking landscape.

  7. Jennifer February 25, 2015 at 1:55 pm #

    I especially love your photo of Dunluce Castle! I haven’t been to Ireland yet and honestly Dublin doesn’t interest me too much, but exploring along this drive looks right up my alley.
    Jennifer recently posted…8 Types of Italian Coffees, ExplainedMy Profile

    • Laura Longwell February 28, 2015 at 3:53 pm #

      We always like to have a mix of cities and countryside when we travel. Ireland has way more stunning countryside for great roadtrips than many places we’ve been.

  8. the lazy travelers February 26, 2015 at 11:42 am #

    i just visited northern ireland in january and LOVED it (funny timing, too, as i just posted a video from our trip today!) our weather was completely insane the day we drove, though, so i think i need to go back when we have better chances of consistent sun. xo! ashley
    the lazy travelers recently posted…a perfect day in northern ireland, with @HastingsHotelsMy Profile

    • Laura Longwell February 28, 2015 at 3:51 pm #

      Good luck finding consistent sun anywhere in Ireland or Northern Ireland 🙂 Luckily, it’s beautiful anyway!

  9. Dan February 27, 2015 at 11:15 am #

    This looks like such a fun area to explore!! I must have been nice to be in the McQuillan and MacDonald clans back in the day they lived in the Dunluce Caslte. 😀

  10. John March 1, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

    A great post – Northern Ireland is somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a long time.
    John recently posted…11 things I learned from my first Karneval in DusseldorfMy Profile

  11. Elaine J. Masters March 1, 2015 at 5:50 pm #

    Perhaps its the scars from my Catholic school days with Irish nuns but I haven’t been to Ireland. Your pictures make me want to see these beautiful places. Forget Shillelaghs!
    Elaine J. Masters recently posted…Through John Steinbeck Country – A Central California Road TripMy Profile

    • Lance Longwell March 2, 2015 at 2:22 pm #

      Give it a go Elaine! The island is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet.

  12. Tessa September 8, 2015 at 8:58 am #

    I recently visited Northern Ireland and your post brought me back there 🙂 I was on a Game of Thrones tour bus but I resolve to return and drive myself all around Ireland/NI! Such lovely photos of Giants Causeway and the Dark Hedges – without the hordes of people 🙂

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